June 15, 2013

“One day in the life of your talent…”
by Kari Gilbertson, Lake Highlands High School, Richardson, TX

(reprinted by permission from "Texas Sings," Fall, 2012)



gilbertsonSeveral years ago, I was on an interview panel for a memorial scholarship given at the high school that my middle school feeds.  It is always a proud experience to sit at that conference table and to hear about the wonderful accomplishments of students that I taught in 7th and 8th grade…to see the potential move closer to reality.  

That year, Lindsey was among the candidates and one of the answers that she gave that day has remained with me years later.  When Lindsey was asked to reflect back on her years in choir, she surprised me by saying that she regretted one thing.   She said, “I tried out for the pop group in seventh grade and I didn’t make it.  I never tried out for anything else again.  I regret that.”   It was an insightful reflection from a high school senior, but it also served as a reminder to me then, and now, that it is my job as a mentor and educator to help kids take risks, celebrate successes, but move on from disappointments.

'Tis the season for auditions:  college scholarship auditions, madrigal groups, show choirs, auditioned choirs, solos for spring concerts, and countless other risk taking opportunities for our singers.  I websteram currently most mindful of the nearly 1,200 students that auditioned for the TCDA Middle School/Junior High Honor Choir!  While it is wonderful that we had more students than ever audition for this wonderful opportunity, I am also keenly aware that nearly 1,000 singers in the state will be disappointed to not be selected…some of those my own students.

So, I think of Lindsey.  How do we help our students overcome disappointment and move on to other opportunities?  How do we prepare our choir parents to best manage the risk of disappointment for their kids, and themselves?  And as much as we'd like to spare our singers from letdowns, we can't -- and that's a good thing.  "When children learn at an early age that they have the tools to get over a disappointing situation, they'll be able to rely on that throughout childhood and even as adults," says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising Resilient Children.  "If you bend over backwards to shield them from disappointment, you're keeping them from developing some important skills."

Over the years, like many of you, I’ve gained some experience in managing the outcomes of auditions.  I think the following are some of the most consistently helpful:

  • Encourage the best preparation.  Helping kids try their best is part of our calling; helping them be their best is part of our job.  If the audition calls for certain scales, songs, pitch matching, sight-reading, choral style, or other expectations, make sure that students know and are prepared to represent their talent in the best way possible.  Song selection, deadlines, keys/range, stage presence, recording quality, practice, etc.  These are all things that we should be helping our students understand and consider as they prepare for auditions. 
  •  “Take me seriously; not personally,” has been my mantra this year.  Adolescents (and often adults) need to be reminded that I am never going to make choices about their talent or behavior based on wanting to hurt them personally.  Remind students and parents that there are objective and subjective factors in choosing from auditions.  Whenever possible, make sure that they understand the factors that they can control far in advance.  (i.e.  Eligibility; preparation; participation; effort; professionalism; leadership, etc.)  Likewise, it is ok to let singers know that they are not always in control of circumstances.  (i.e.  They were looking for a baritone and you’re a soprano; there were only a limited number of spots available; your vocal quality/timbre/style may not have been what they were listening for.)
  • Be as compassionate as possible in sharing results.  Some post by audition numbers, some by names, more and more are going to posting results online.  Some of these posting issues have become complicated, sadly, by legality.  But I find that a simple reminder to kids about humanity can be helpful.  “Remember, you may be as happy as someone else is sad, and vice versa, so make sure you are kind in your reactions.”
  • Have a cooling off period.  If I post results on Friday, I tell my kids that they can be “mad at me” for 48 hours.  Then they come back to class on Monday and we move on to the business at hand...making music together!  Kids are resilient (very often, more so than adults) so I validate their disappointment and hurt, and then I remind them that it is time to move on to other challenges.  After the cooling off period, I’m happy to make appointments with my students to discuss their outcomes.
  • Encourage students to advocate for themselves.  As parents and mentors, our first instinct is to want to fix the hurt.  I get that.  However, helping students advocate for themselves is part of teaching kids how to deal with disappointment.   Mark Rohwer, at Flower Mound HS, reminds parents in his audition materials that their child will soon be in college, or the workforce and they will need to develop the skills of self autonomy and self advocacy.  At my school, we agree to meet with the student first, and if that doesn’t address all the questions and concerns, we will meet with parents and the student.  Once the student is validated and informed, that very often helps them move on.  Or, as Mike O’Hern says, “They just want to know that you still like them and think that they are important.”
  • Look for lessons for next time.  What can you do better next time?  When possible, find out what happened that affected the audition outcome.  It is an artful teacher/mentor who can give advice about what a singer needs to improve without hurting feelings, but only saying, “You were great and they were crazy not to take you” just perpetuates the American Idol/America’s Got Talent kind of mentality that our society has developed about auditions.  Call me old fashioned, but the real world doesn’t often assess by rubrics, so helping students be self reflective and self aware of areas of improvement is an immeasurable life lesson.
  • Get back on the horse.  The Columbus Children’s Choir audition page says, “Don’t be disappointed after your audition.  The more you do this, the better you will get at it.”   It’s important that they know that they will have other opportunities.  It is essential that we offer perspective.  The old advice is still around, and it bears repeating for this generation.  “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again!”  Or, as my father would lovingly, but firmly say to us growing up, “Life’s hard…chew harder!”  We laugh about that now, but you know, he was right!

And so I tell Lindsey’s story.  I tell it at least once a year.  I enthusiastically tell stories from my own experiences about risks that I’ve taken, failures I’ve had, and what I learned moving forward to other successes. 

My standard closing line is, “This is one day in the life of your talent.  The saddest thing about trying out is not if you don’t make it.  The saddest thing is if you never try again.”  That being said, consider how you can model and affirm the best examples of helping kids deal with disappointment. 

These are the lessons that will take them through your classroom and into adulthood.  This is why we take risks…this is why we teach!

More about Kari Gilbertson

Kari Gilbertson has been teaching choral music for the last 23 years.  She has teaching experience at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.  Most recently, Ms. Gilbertson has been named the Head Choir Director at Lake Highlands High School in Richardson ISD, a suburb of Dallas.  Prior to that, she spent the last 15 years at Forest Meadow Junior High.  During her tenure there, she has directed many Sweepstakes and Award winning choirs.  She has also had the privilege of receiving such professional honors as “PTA Lifetime Member,” “PTA Teacher of Excellence,” and was “Secondary Teacher of the Year” for Richardson ISD in 2001. 

Ms. Gilbertson has a Bachelors Degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.  While there, she sang for Rene Clausen in The Concordia Choir for four years.  She also has a Masters Degree from Southern Methodist University.

An active soloist, adjudicator, and clinician, Ms. Gilbertson is also a contributing author for the textbook series Spotlight on Music and Experiencing Choral Music.  Most recently, Ms. Gilbertson was named a Lead Author on Hal Leonard/McGraw Hill’s latest choral textbook.  She is a member of ACDA, TCDA, TMAA, and TMEA.  Ms. Gilbertson is proud to serve as the current JH/MS Vice-President for the Texas Choral Directors Association.